JULY 9, 2011
As pointed out by Leigh Whannell in one of the bonus features, part of what makes Insidious work as well as it does is that there are no fake scares in the film. If someone backs up into something, it's a ghost, not a lamp or their friend or whatever. It's something so simple, yet he and James Wan are seemingly the first to bother trying to go 100 minutes without wasting energy and tension on a goddamn coat rack. Take note, Screen Gems!
And that is probably why this little 1 million movie went on to gross over 50 mil in the US alone, a great number even for a big studio horror flick (it remains the highest grossing genre film of the year). Word of mouth was terrific, and the PG-13 rating helped rather than hindered - Wan actually WANTED a PG-13, and got it, effectively killing the notion that a movie can be R simply for being too scary (as Del Toro is claiming for Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark - then why wasn't I scared once during his film? I jumped like 5x at this movie). Indeed, there isn't a single drop of blood in the film (that red smear on the blanket is actually lipstick), which should also help get the team out of the shadow of the "Splat Pack" (indeed, I noticed on the DVD cover that they have replaced "The Creators of Saw" with Wan/Whannell's actual names - a good sign!).
It also holds up to repeat viewings. I prefer the first half of the film, as that's where most of the best scares are (the ghost pacing back and forth and then charging at Rose Byrne still freaks me out), and also where the story is easier to identify with: it's for all intents and purposes a traditional haunted house flick. The second half, when the psychics show up and we learn the hook - it's not the house that's haunted but the kid himself - is fun, but to me not as scary. There are still a few good jolts, and the lipstick demon is a suitably creepy creation (I would love to see a few walking around at Halloween*), but the astral projection stuff is harder to identify with, and thus it loses a bit of the "this could happen to you!" feeling that the first half delivered so effectively.
It's also where the Poltergeist homages start to be more apparent, particularly with the trio of psychics. I actually enjoyed these (maybe it will help prevent a full fledged remake), but I wish the humor that these characters bring to the table had been threaded into the first half somehow. In Poltergeist, it's sort of funny right from the start, with the dueling remotes and sleazy construction guys and what not, and then gets more serious (and thus, scary) as it goes. But here it's the other way around; the movie is pretty serious (save for the obligatory "Billy" cameo, which always brought a big cheer in theaters) until they show up around 50 minutes or so into the film, so the dynamic changes a bit. It's not a critical flaw, not even close - I think it's more that I am so rarely actually scared by a movie at all, let alone in the first half, that I was sort of hoping they could keep/build on that tension until the very end.
Another thing in its favor is the acting, not usually the strong point for a small horror film. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson are both actors I've enjoyed in their dramatic films (plus their rare genre turns; Byrne in Sunshine and Wilson in Watchmen), so to see them in a haunted house flick is a nice treat. Both create very real, sympathetic characters, and have terrific chemistry with the kids playing their sons. In just a few minutes you buy them as a real family, which is crucial since the movie's story requires the shit to hit the fan relatively early, and if you're not believing them as real people you're not going to be scared when they are in danger. So kudos to them (and Whannell's script) for giving us folks to root for period, let alone getting us on their side in the first ten minutes or so (though the less said about Byrne's character's terrible songwriting "skill", the better).
Sony is distributing the Blu-ray (new company Film District released the film theatrically), and thus you can expect a top-notch presentation for the film. I may be a film guy, but I admit when digital looks great, and this movie looks DAMN great. If every digitally shot film looked this good, we'd probably hear a lot less debate on the matter. And the transfer for Blu is terrific, particularly in the scenes in "The Further", where the ghosts pop out even better than they did in theaters. Detail levels are also impeccable; I love when I can see the grain and flecks on a crayon drawing - that sort of texture gives the image a life that you just can't get on lower-res (i.e. streaming) sources. The sound mix is also a home run; particularly in the big seance scene as the sounds of the lights popping out emanates in full surround sound glory. Not bad for a flick that cost less than any given minute of Transformers 3.
Of course, the reason the film might look so good is because there was plenty of space on the disc, as the extras are pretty slim. There are three featurettes; one with Wan and Whannell discussing their approach to the story, another a look at the actual production (complete with the ghost extras doing "Thriller" to kill time while they waited to get their closeups), and then a brief piece showcasing a few of the ghosts. They're not BAD, exactly, but they're pretty generic, EPK style pieces that won't give you much more insight than you could learn in a 4 page article in Fangoria. I was quite disappointed with the lack of a commentary track, too - Wan did one for Saw II and he didn't even direct that!
Luckily, when the movie's good, it doesn't need a bunch of bells and whistles to justify a purchase. I've seen it 3x now and it still causes a few jolts, and I'm not easily jolt-able. I don't know why they're putting it out now in the middle of summer when it's the perfect sort of Halloween-time movie (especially, ironically enough, since there's no new Saw film for us to enjoy this year), but rest assured it works just as well at home as it did in theaters.
What say you?
*As I mentioned during the film's theatrical run (which is why there was no review), I am friends with some of the folks involved with the film, including the actor who played said Demon (hence why I'd be so delighted to see folks dressing up as him this October). Not entirely comfortable doing a review (they sent me the disc, I sort of "have" to!), but I figure by now most fans have already made up their mind how they feel about the movie anyway, and I know some of you guys were asking for my review even knowing about the potential "bias". Besides, considering its word of mouth success and current "Fresh" status on Rotten Tomatoes, it's not like I'm shilling for some turkey just because I'm buddies with some of the crew. You don't need me to tell you the movie's good!